Exploring the Haunted City

  • Lychakivskiy Cemetery: Lviv’s very own city of the dead and an  atmospheric way to get in touch with city’s ancient ancestors
  • Ghost train: When the railway first reached rural Lviv region in the 19th century locals believed that there were phantom engine
  • Exploring the Haunted City
Issue 6, October 2008.

Lviv’s city of the dead

The Bohemian heart of Lviv, with its warren of courtyards and cobbled streets, is the ideal setting for a good ghost story. Lviv has often been used as a cinematic backdrop to period movies both in Soviet and more recent times, and it is not hard to appreciate the moody ambience the city’s old town can generate. However, the spookiest place in town is undoubtedly Lychakivskiy Cemetery, a veritable city of dead where the Lviv’s imperial adventures are laid bare in a collection of Polish and Ukrainian tombs including some of the most legendary figures in both countries’ histories. In more recent years the cemetery has also become a shrine and place of pilgrimage to supporters of Ukraine’s UPA WWII-era insurgent army, whose underground war against the Soviet Union in the late 1940s made them taboo until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Numerous prominent members of UPA have been buried in Lychakivskiy in the past two decades, while plans remain afoot to bring the earthly remains of UPA leader Stepan Bandera back from Germany for permanent burial in this most symbolic of Ukrainian cemeteries. The mostly eighteenth and nineteenth century tomb designs which dominate the cemetery offer an authentic aura of the past that makes for wonderfully scary evening exploring. Guests are advised to arrive prior to sunset in order to enjoy the twilight before darkness sets in.

KGB victims demanding ghostly justice          

Other haunted spots are the product of recent history and carry a grim reminder of the human cost of the Soviet experiment. The dark, obscure edifice of the State Security Building on Vytovskogo street once housed the KGB’s Lviv offices and legend has it that ghosts from the Soviet period continue to haunt the premises today. Of all the countless victims to have passed through this building on their way to nameless mass graves or hard labour in the Siberian gulag, it is said to be the spirits of the many clergymen to have suffered here which linger in their demand for justice.

             Lviv’s legendary seductress

Despite its troubled history Lviv remains at heart a city of romance and so it is not surprising that many of its ghost stories often involve love and erotica. One such tale involves the celebrated but mysterious madam of a Lviv villa at the turn of the twentieth century.

The story begins in 1910 when a wealth Lviv attorney fell in love with the 30 year old Sara Braga, a beauty who resided in the mysterious Pionia Villa. Once the couple had moved into the villa together one of the attorney’s friends began to notice some disturbing changes. This friend, who was a psychiatrist by profession, decided to investigate. Eventually, the attorney confesses that he has become pathologically dependent on the sexual favours of Sara beyond the point of free will.  

Intrigued by this confession, the psychiatrist decided to check who this phenomenal lady was. To his amazement, medical records indicated that during her last known check-up in 1875, she had been 45 years old! In other words, this irresistible nymphet was actually an old lady of eighty. Shortly after this discovery, the psychiatrist’s attorney friend died, and so the psychiatrist decided he must see Sara Braga for himself and get to the bottom of the matter. He visited his friend’s funeral, where to his astonishment he learned that the beautiful Sara had been married six times but all of her husbands had died soon after their weddings. The psychiatrist managed to flirt with Sara and secure an invitation to dine at the villa. Full of excitement, he set off, and it was not long before the sumptuously decorated Sara began her seduction. Summoning all his willpower, the psychiatrist resisted her advances, until Sara became despondent. As she gradually realised that she could not seduce the psychiatrist, she began to age visibly. The psychiatrist, feeling no pity, continued to resist and began reading the biblical story of Sarah, who lost seven husbands because of her dealings with the demon Asmodeus until he was confident that the spell had been broken and Sara lay dead, a wrinkled little old lady. Legend has it that even today Lviv is haunted by a few such Saras, who will appear as beautiful temptresses to seduce men to their doom until someone can break the spell they cast on young men’s hearts

             Lviv’s dragon legend                

Not all of Lviv’s ghosts are human souls. Up on one of the hills overlooking Lviv you will find St. Yuriy’s Chruch, a splendid wedding cake of a structure which stands on top of an ancient cave. Legend has it that this underground lair was once inhabited by a terrible dragon, who trapped the inhabitants of medieval Lviv in an existence of terror which they could only protect themselves against by feeding the dragon young Lviv virgin girls. This legend, which some have suggested was promoted by inventive if unscrupulous medieval Romeos in a bid to encourage promiscuity, states that the dragon was not vanquished by a knight in shining armour but instead is thought to have simply died of extreme old age.

The ghost coffin of city hall

In the very centre of the city’s showpiece Market Square is Lviv City Hall, an iconic landmark that also has its own ghost legend which dates back some 400 years. According to ancient chronicles there was panic among city hall guards in the late sixteenth century when they encountered a flying black coffin passing through the rooms of city hall. This vision has reappeared on numerous occasions ever since and is said to be the coffin of an innocent man condemned to death by a group of Lviv judges who later found the real culprit and realised their tragic error. The spirit of the innocent victim is said to be a reminder to Lviv’s rulers not to take their responsibilities lightly.

Waiting for a ghost train

Lviv’s classical railway station is the scene of perhaps the most widely witnessed ghost story in the city. In 1961 the Habsubrg railway revolution reached Lviv, making it Ukraine’s first railway city. However, all was apparently not well at Lviv train station as a number of strange and unexplainable incidents occurred. Then, in the late 1970s locals from the surrounding countryside began reporting sightings of a ghost train moving down the line and then disappearing into thin air. The reports grew in number until they finally reached the pages of the local press. Then one day as passengers waited for the arrival of the express train from Vienna they were horrified to see a huge engine entering the station along the same line but from the opposite direction! As the two trains seemed about to collide the mysterious engine simply disappeared, taking with it all its passenger-laden wagons. Popular folklore now believes that this incident was the one and only appearance of the region’s very own ghost train. It has not been seen since, but sometimes, on cold and lonely nights the citizens of Lviv are awoken by the gentle sound of a train that isn’t there, slowly working its way along the track.